The government Tuesday announced the creation of a “Terrorist Screening Center” aimed at providing centralized access to a single, unified database of anti-terrorist information. Currently, a dozen so-called “terrorist watch lists” are maintained by nine federal agencies and are not all accessible by members of other agencies, state or local law enforcement personnel.
The move Tuesday is an attempt to finally put to rest the problem of consolidating these lists that has plagued Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge since he took office. The task fell to Ridge’s department in March when DHS officially opened its doors. But the job proved more difficult than first imagined, complicated by technology, political and bureaucratic culture.
“In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it became clear that vital watch list information stored in numerous and disparate federal databases” was not “available to the right people at the right time,” said a Government Accounting Office report, released in April, that called for the integration and better coordination of terrorist watch lists. Among the problems the GAO found were, in particular, “federal agencies that maintained information about terrorists and other criminals had not consistently shared it.”
Within the matrix
The center is intended to be part of an intelligence matrix that also includes units within the Department of Homeland Security and the interagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center, government officials from the DHS, FBI, the Justice Department and the CIA said during a news conference Tuesday. The center will take information funneled to it from various agencies, including the CIA, FBI and the State Department, and consolidate it into a single database.
The screening center has no investigative authority, officials said, and its creation provides law enforcement with no expanded powers.
The separate watch lists present a “potential for another seam,” in the investigative process to open up, said Attorney General John Ashcroft. The center provides a “one-stop shopping” clearinghouse of anti-terrorist information “whether it’s an airport screener, an embassy official issuing visas overseas, or an FBI agent on the street,” Ashcroft said.
Bucks stop somewhere
In July during a hearing, the House Select Committee on Homeland Security asked who had the ultimate authority for integrating the watch lists.
“I believe by statute it is a shared responsibility…within the government,” answered John Brennan, director of the newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center. “There is no ‘Secretary of terrorism,’” Brennan said. “And so therefore that responsibility is shared among those different agencies.”
Tuesday’s announcement bolsters Brennan’s statement. The center will be administered by the FBI, owing to its “technical expertise in watch list integration,” the DHS said in a statement.
However, the new screening center is meant to be an “interagency effort,” government officials said Tuesday. It will be staffed with members from Homeland Security, the State Department, CIA and FBI.
The screening center will be “phased in” over the next few months and is scheduled for full operation by Dec. 1, the government said in statement.
Another advantage of the center, officials said Tuesday, is the ability to carefully edit the information in the database. Knitting together a dozen different databases requires careful work, officials said.
Representatives from all agencies involved will make determinations on how much access to the central database certain individuals will get. For example, a Customs and Border Protection officer will need a different level of access than that of an embassy official. A local sheriff or state trooper needs another level of access.
An unclassified database, accessible to queries for federal, state and local agencies, also will be made available “for a variety of screening purposes,” officials said.
Whether agencies and organizations outside of government, say banks and insurance companies, will be allowed any kind of access to the unclassified portions of the database is an issue that hasn’t been worked out yet, officials said, but is an area under discussion.